Crowe: 'We've got to get TennCare under control'

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   Tennessee legislators are up against some hard choices this term as they grapple with Gov. Phil Bredesen's $21.5 billion budget proposal, which includes cuts of 9 percent to most areas of government.
   Sen. Rusty Crowe said he is pleased that Bredesen showed a great deal of fiscal responsibility. "Had the state taken the action three years ago that this governor's taking, we would not be in the shape that we are now. It looks like he's very sincere about trying to balance the budget; and like the governor, it hurts me inside to have to make some of the cuts we're having to make, but we are in a Recession and TennCare is eating our budget alive."
   Crowe said the state cannot continue to let TennCare ruin other programs which also are important to our community. "We've got to get it under control, but we have to do it in a way that we don't hurt people. And we've got to fix it such that people who need it get it, but people that are out of state and people that are ineligible don't get it."
   Crowe said TennCare needs to be run like a business. "Between this past year and this year, it's almost taken an additional $500 million. There's no tax system in this nation that can keep up with that kind of deficit spending. You can't print money fast enough to take care of the needs of TennCare. We're going to have to do something or it's going to ruin us."
   Gov. Bredesen pledged Monday to take the next two or three months and dedicate that to fixing TennCare, or starting over with a TennCare-type program. Crowe said part of the problem is "unlimited pharmaceuticals. We have people from other states coming in because they can get their pharmaceuticals easier here than in other states through that program." Part of the problem also is that the benefits in TennCare are better than the benefits from insurers such as Blue Cross, he said.
   Also a problem, Crowe said, is that former Gov. Don Sundquist negotiated a contract with Washington that allowed a ceiling to be placed on the amount spent. "Once you reach that cap, there's no federal match; it's all 100 percent state funding. That's where almost $200 million of that $500 million is coming from," he said.
   Tennessee is the only state in the nation that has a cap placed on spending, according to Crowe, and he is hopeful that Tennessee's congressional leaders can work on the ceiling from Washington. "If they're able to solve that problem, we won't have the major problems that we're having. We've got to get TennCare under control."
   According to the senator, Tennessee's lottery legislation now is moving along after being held up a couple of weeks. "What we've got to decide now is how it's implemented. We're trying to make sure that someone going to Milligan gets the same amount of money as someone going to ETSU (East Tennessee State University), so the private schools and the public schools are treated the same.
   "We're trying to make sure that it takes a 3.0 to get the scholarship ... [and] we're trying to make sure that what people voted for and passed is implemented."
   Crowe said it's possible that the lottery could be up and running in January and could produce around $220 million the first year. Of that, each student who has a "B" average would receive approximately $4,000 in scholarship money each school year.
   According to the senator, Gov. Bredesen is full aware that East Tennessee was very important to his election, and is committed to making sure that Nashville doesn't forget that East Tennessee has needs just like Middle and West Tennessee. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease; and we make sure that we don't let them forget that we have needs up our way. The dollars don't need to stop in Knoxville."
   Crowe said he feels confident that highway projects in this area are on track. Tennessee Department of Transportation is getting ready to buy right-of-way property for the Northern Connector project, he said. "Also, the Okolona project is a project that we're very interested in. That road needs to be made much more modern than it is, and then it would be nice if we could make that Okolona exit off of I-26 an interchange so that we can have some hotels and shops and increase our county tax base."
   Crowe said the next step after the Northern Connector and Okolona Road is to work on Gap Creek Road, and to try to complete the highway project from Highway 91 in Elizabethton to Tri-Cities Regional Airport. "We want to complete those road projects as soon as possible, and then I would like to see us work on Highway 67 up past Watauga Lake.
   "I think we're very lucky to have these projects under way and we're going to work very hard to make sure they get completed. Roads mean jobs, and the sooner we finish these projects the better off we're going to be. These have been planned and they're going to be constructed. It'll take a while -- they do them in phases -- but they'll be done," he said.